Comments: Are we angry over some God-given right or just a nice touch?

When exactly were comments expected at the bottom of every story from a news organization? I have some nostalgia for the days you read something in the paper and then slammed it down in disgust, only giving your opinion to the person next to you. Apparently no one else cares to relive those memories.

There’s no getting around the fact comment sections are better breeding grounds for vicious attacks rather than insightful discussion. That’s the tangle the New Haven Independent got in this month just before shutting off its comments section. The editor, Paul Bass, was fed up with filtering out obscene, ridiculous posts all day. I can’t blame him. Bass hopes to find a way to return to offering comments in the near future, but I think this cooling-off period serves as a reminder to news organizations of every size: There’s no right way to do comments, they all present problems.

Before I came to Northeastern, I worked at the Santa Barbara Daily Sound. We had the distinction at the time of being the only news site in town where you didn’t have to register to leave comments. We also had the distinction of having some of the most vicious commenters in town. I remember a specific instance where a family of Mexican immigrants were killed when a truck ran through their house one day and the comments section turned into a display of bigotry. Sure, the editor and I started filtering comments but we wouldn’t get to all of them very quickly. It got to the point where comments were moderated before being posted.

Since a website redo last fall, the commments are integrated with Facebook, Yahoo and other platforms that make you make an account and show at least some identity. The number of posts have dropped way down and so have the page views. But I think the paper has gained some credibility because of it. Dan Kennedy said in a Nieman Lab essay, comments are necessary part of the Independent’s identity. They’re a key to civic engagement. I think some sites, these online outlets that openly bash the mainstream media for being closed and sheltered when it comes to engagement, have built a brand around easy access to getting your voice out through comments. As these sites grow up, they become tired of the same trolls shouting with caps lock on. The trolls, unfortunately, never grow up. Remove the ability to comment, and you might as well have just cut off their ability to breath.

To be brutally honest, I wouldn’t care if comment sections disappeared tomorrow, a feeling I believe is shared by many people familiar with social media. I rarely use them, and if I want to tell people what I think and start a lively discussion, I throw my opinion up on Facebook or Twitter. And think about it: Comments are nothing new, they’ve been around for ages. They’re called letters to the editor.

Photo: Flickr/Denis Dervisevic

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